What is a parish?

In reflecting on Anglican congregations and their connections with their respective geographical communities, we must look at the meaning of the term “parish”.

The American Heritage Dictionary offers this definition, which I have abbreviated to the relevant portions.

  1. a. An administrative part of a diocese that has its own church in the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and some other churches.
    b.The members of such a parish; a religious community attending one church.
  2. A political subdivision of a British county, usually corresponding in boundaries to an original ecclesiastical parish.

In the traditional sense, definition 1a is the best description. It was out of the church-established parishes that the government subdivisions, of definition 2, grew. In the contemporary sense, definition 1b is the one most used in the United States. I believe it is a corruption of the traditional sense of the word which has come about because of the historic lack of an established church in the federal system of the United States (realizing, of course, that there were established churches in some states in an earlier time and in the colonial era). The open market of religious beliefs has led to a lack of demarcation of geographical areas based on religious affiliation. Though some denominations are strong in certain areas, no single religious body has maintained absolute control over communities in the same way that has existed in the English church for centuries.

The Catholic Encyclopedia offers this definition, which I have also abbreviated:

A parish is a portion of a diocese under the authority of a priest legitimately appointed to secure in virtue of his office for the faithful dwelling therein, the helps of religion. The faithful are called parishioners, the priest parochus, curate, parish priest, pastor. To form a parish there must be (1) a certain body of the faithful over whom pastoral authority is exercised; the ordinary manner of determining them is by assigning a territory subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the parish priest.

I believe this would accord with the traditional view of the parish system in Anglicanism. Essentially, there is a geographical area, recognized by the bishop, which is led by a priest, and who ministers to those within the area. The impetus for forming a parish is the existence of a certain number of Christians who desire a parish church.

Consulting the trusty Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (third edition), I find this definition, which I have again shortened:

In England, an area under the spiritual care of a C of E clergyman …, to whose religious ministrations all its inhabitants are entitled.

Though there are many more things that could be said about the background of what we have come to know as a parish, these definitions (particularly that from the Oxford Dictionary) give us a succinct vision of what the traditional parish looks like. The parish from the English system is a territory whose residents are entitled to the spiritual care of a priest assigned to the area church. To expand this idea slightly, the ministry of the local church is not limited to those persons who attend that church’s services; instead, the local church ministers to the community at large, some of the inhabitants of which participate in the religious services of the church.

This is certainly a different idea of the parish than most Anglicans have today. Instead of viewing our ministry as being oriented to the community, we see our ministry as being oriented to those who attend Sunday services. I contend that the responsibility of ministry does not stop at the boundary of the church precincts, but that it extends to the territorial limits of the community.

This article is part 2 of 2 in the series Parish Ministry.
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May 26, 2008 12:20 pm CDT

It seems to me that the parish is the context for incarnational ministry ("preach the gospel and if necessry use words'-St.Francis ) Proclamation and incarnation go hand in hand.Relational evangelism is woefully missing from much (not all ) of the continuing Anglican church. I look forward to your continuing exploration of this paradigm.

Fr. Thomas Boully+
Fr. Thomas Boully+
May 27, 2008 3:38 pm CDT

I am warming to this subject matter already, I suppose I, and my co-pastor Fr. Kirk have been practicing this concept in a way for a couple of years now.We have been holding services for needy veterans at the Baldomero Lopez State Veteran's Nursing Home every second Sunday of the month right after our own church services. We go straight there (about 5 miles away) right after our social. The Service at the Veteran's home is held at 2pm, which is most convenient for them.We usually have between 14 and 18 attending, and they have time and time again expressed… Read more »

Jack Panino
Jack Panino
May 28, 2008 12:01 am CDT

The parish system has built-in safeguards for protection of existing parishes that the circumstances in "continuing Anglicanism" sadly obviate. Cautionary tale:A friend of mine became the rector of a parish in another part of the country. The previous rector retired and because the continuum is so disorganized was allowed to remain resident in the parish. Less than a year went by before the "rector emeritus," after causing trouble for a few months, finally quit the parish and was actually allowed by their bishop to stay home and say Mass in his house for himself and his wife! As if that… Read more »

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